While doing an analysis of UK companies and comparing share-price performance of companies with male vs. female board members, Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam discovered an interesting trend. In the months before a male was appointed to the board of directors a company was likely to be doing well and holding performance steady. In the months before a female board member was appointed a company was much more likely to be doing poorly.
This is been a double-edged sword for female board members; regression towards the mean is working in their favor... but companies that are doing poorly are also more likely to go out of business or be looking for scapegoats. In 2004, when these results first came out, the BBC noted that companies that hired a female board member after a downturn did tend to see a upturn in share prices, but did not give any specific statistics on this. Anecdotal evidence of female CEOs put in these positions in recent years appears to support the view that scapegoatism is an likely outcome.
While the cause of the glass cliff remains a mystery, it is clear that it appears across contexts. Female lawyers are more likely to be given the lead on risky legal cases and female political candidates are more likely to be run in offices where the opposition has a strong lead (this effect is also seen with ethnic minority candidates).
Moreover, the glass cliff is in effect even when it is absolutely clear that the female job candidate is not volunteering for more difficult positions; various studies have been carried out in which management graduates, high-school students, and business leaders were given information about a hypothetical organization whose performance was (in some cases) improving or (in others) declining, and then given information about potential leaders for this organization. Statistically, both men and women were more likely to recommend a woman candidate for the position when the company was in trouble. Surveys of the participants' perceptions of the candidates found that woman candidates were seen as more suitable to the position and as more capable leaders when the test subjects were considering their abilities in the context of a failing company.
The cause of the glass cliff is still a matter of speculation, as are possible ways to obviate it. It is a safe bet that first step should be a continual drive to reduce the effects of the glass ceiling and the related double standards for female/male aggressive, decisive, and career oriented behavior. These factors continue to be an important issue, and one that we can recognize and address more directly. And if you do find a highly qualified woman to save you from disaster, gently berate yourself for not hiring her before the shit hit the fan.